Monday, May 7, 2012

Smoky and spicy macaroni and cheese with saffron (with mac and cheese cooking tips)


In my first blog post, I wrote about an American-themed dinner party which included a macaroni and cheese dish served in a ramekin.  The reason it was served in a ramekin because it was a part of a six-course tasting menu.  Tonight, the macaroni and cheese was the main dish, to be served with a sausage.
Macaroni and cheese is a dish that is very close to my heart.  I grew up in Michigan in the States, and I consider macaroni and cheese to be an American national dish (if not the national dish).  I remember enjoying nice baked macaroni and cheese during the snowy Michigan winters.  It really was the best way to warm up after playing in the snow as a kid, perhaps second only to drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows.  It was the ultimate soul and comfort food.
An authentic mac and cheese is cheesy, saucy and well seasoned and spiced.  It is usually baked with a layer of breadcrumbs on top to create a crunchy textural contrast.  There is also a debate about whether it should be served with ketchup, although my take on that debate is that it’s all good – with or without the ketchup.
As I wrote in my earlier blog post, you can’t get good mac and cheese in Australia.  You tend to either get the Kraft snack version made with cheese powder, or you tend to get overcooked macaroni in bland cream sauce with some cheese.  Even the mac and cheese that I tried at Rockpool, a top restaurant in Melbourne, was decent but hardly amazing.
My latest mac and cheese creation retains its spirit of warmth and comfort, but I have tried to lift it to another level with the generous use of saffron, chili oil and my own blend of spices (chipotle chili powder, cayenne pepper, sweet paprika, turmeric and smoked salt).  These spices add a completely different dimension to a roux-thickened milk sauce with melted cheddar, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, provolone dolce, parmesan and Philadelphia cream cheese. 

The final product is cheesy, saucy, spicy, sweet, smoky, crunchy with a bright yellow colour.  To me, the keys to its success are the saffron, chipotle powder and smoked salt and I hope that you consider this or a similar combination should you choose to venture into the world of mac and cheese.
In the end, this was served up with a Weisshurst made with pork from the Otway region in Victoria, which is delicious enough for its own post.  However, I’ll leave it here to focus on the mac and cheese!
(Relatively) fresh out of the oven.
My cheesy mac served with a Weisswurst sausage made with Otway pork.
 Please note that I don’t have a recipe this week because I forgot to measure, but I will definitely be following up on this post with a recipe at some stage.  Also, I promised some friends that this post would be about soup, but unfortunately didn’t get time to make soup this weekend.  I will do my best to do a soup post soon!

Sulking dog who didn't get to eat any.
Macaroni and cheese tips
  1. Be creative with your blend of cheeses.  I recommend mixing hard and soft cheeses, cow with goat cheeses, etc.  Just make sure that they are balanced and contrasting.  I wouldn’t for example, mix manchego with parmesan – they are too similar and would be too intense.
  2. Make sure that you make plenty of cheese sauce.  There is a craft to it because if you simply try to melt cheese into milk, chances are it will separate (especially with soft cheeses) which is pretty bloody unappetising.  The trick is to pre-thicken the sauce with roux, which is a mixture of equal quantities of butter and flour by weight. 
  3. To make roux, pre-heat a frying pan on medium-low heat.  Melt the butter and then add the flour.  Stir continuously with a wooden spoon for about 3-5 minutes until the mixture starts to darken.  If you use flour to thicken sauces, you need to make sure to cook it through or else it will impart a pretty bad taste to your sauce.  You can then add the roux to a sauce pan and add milk. 
  4. The quantity of roux is up to you.  You don’t want your sauce to be too thick, so I recommend about 2 tablespoons of butter to 3 tablespoons of flour for around 400-500 mL of milk.  There is no real science to this – but you need to remember that keeping it on the runny side is okay because the sauce will thicken more when you add cheese to it.
  5. I recommend using spices liberally.  Remember that if your sauce is really cheesy, you need a lot of spice.  Try to use fresh dried spices that have been lightly toasted to bring out the flavour.  I recommend using most of it when cooking the cream sauce, but to leave some for sprinkling at the end for presentation.
  6. Do not cook your pasta through when boiling.  You want to cook them about halfway and then cool them down with cold water to stop it cooking further.  It will cook when you bake it in the oven and you also want it to absorb your delicious sauce.  If you have fully cooked the pasta, it will be water-logged (less flavour) and end up soggy. 
  7. When baking in the oven, stir the pasta and sauce in a baking dish.  Then add some small chunks of cheese to stir through (it will melt when baking). 
  8. Finally, top generously with breadcrumbs (I recommend making them coarsely yourself out of stale bread.  Otherwise buy Panko breadcrumbs, which are nice and flaky.  Regular breadcrumbs are too fine).  Add a thin layer of butter on the top layer so that the top will be golden brown in the oven.
  9. After removing from the oven, let it cool down a little bit so it can set.  You can then cut it into squares and serve neat pieces that way.  If you can’t wait that long, it’s fine.  Messy mac and cheese is equally delicious!
  10. Last tip: for the love of God, do not use reduced fat cheese.  The reduced fat content compromises its melting ability.  No one eats mac and cheese for health reasons, so go nuts with lots of cheese and butter.

1 comment: